CHARLOTTE — After attending a fundraiser with several NBA stars last month, Barack Obama noted, “It’s very rare that I come to an event where I’m like the fifth- or sixth-most interesting person.” It would be even more unusual for the president to attend a political convention and be the fifth- or sixth-most interesting attraction. But that’s exactly what happened to Obama at the Democratic convention here in Charlotte.
The president’s speech Thursday night was workmanlike and delivered with his usual polish. But in content and impact, it ranked behind Bill Clinton’s speech Wednesday night, Michelle Obama’s Tuesday night, and even Joe Biden’s address immediately preceding the president. And as a moment, Obama’s speech certainly took a backseat to the touching appearance of former Rep. Gabriel Giffords to lead the Pledge of Allegiance on the convention’s final night. So yes, the president’s appearance was perhaps the fifth-most interesting event of the convention.
As he laid out his case for re-election, Obama struggled with a basic underlying question: What happened to all that hope from his 2008 campaign? Obama knows that his actual record as president leaves many voters uninspired, and certainly not filled with hope. So early in the speech, he sought to redefine hope — to define it down — into something that fits his purposes now.
“The first time I addressed this convention in 2004, I was a younger man; a Senate candidate from Illinois who spoke about hope,” Obama told the crowd. “Not blind optimism or wishful thinking, but hope in the face of difficulty; hope in the face of uncertainty; that dogged faith in the future which has pushed this nation forward, even when the odds are great; even when the road is long. Eight years later, that hope has been tested – by the cost of war; by one of the worst economic crises in history; and by political gridlock that’s left us wondering whether it’s still possible to tackle the challenges of our time.”
What Obama seemed to be saying is that whatever you thought hope was before, this is what it is now: A long, hard slog to a future with a lot of green energy.
Perhaps the most striking thing about Obama’s speech was that it did not emphasize the most urgent concern of the greatest number of voters: the continuing unemployment crisis. It’s the most glaring weakness in Obama’s record, and he chose simply not to address it in a systematic way. Perhaps that had something to do with the fact that the government would release new jobs numbers less than twelve hours after the president’s speech. More likely it was because Obama doesn’t really know what to say about the problem.
In any event, expect Mitt Romney and Republicans to pounce on the issue; moments after the speech ended, GOP pollster David Winston tweeted, “An aspirational speech from President Obama — but he didn’t answer the one key question for the future of this country — Where are the jobs?”
Not long after Obama left the stage, the Romney campaign sent out a compilation of quotes from various instant analyses of the speech: “Stuff we’ve heard before.” “An excitement gap. “Didn’t have the spark.” “Lacked Clinton’s magic.” That’s all true. But the most telling aspect of Obama’s appearance was his inability to seriously discuss unemployment — and his effort to retroactively redefine his old campaign theme of “hope” into something far smaller than it once was.